A Conservation Biologist’s Best Friend

By Lisa Horn

Imagine you’re a conservation biologist working in the expansive savannahs of western Zambia. You are studying the rare and elusive cheetah and working to map their abundance and distribution in the area. If you’re really lucky, you might actually see a cheetah, but you’re aware that the only clues to their presence are likely the traces they’ve left behind.

Your colleague is perhaps even more eager than you to find evidence of cheetahs. Suddenly, you see his body language change and a determined expression take over his face as he notices something promising. After zigzagging wildly through the tall grass, he plops down on the ground, tail wagging frantically, in front of a dried clump of cheetah poop.

A dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times more acute than our own, and their powerful noses allow them to do things that humans and even their machines could never do. Dogs can smell drugs, explosives, and contraband at airports. They can detect cancer and other diseases in people, even at the very early stages. And all over the world, dogs are adding conservation work to their list of talents.

Levi the canine tracker with his handler in Namibia. Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund

For example, dogs can help biologists track down invasive species like the Carolina Anole, a small, lime-green lizard that is native to the southeastern United States. Once introduced to the Ogasawara Islands of Japan, the tree-dwelling lizards took over the subtropical forests, hunting the islands’ endemic insects to near extinction.

Conservation biologists have desperately tried to eradicate the lizards from the islands by putting sticky traps on tree trunks. Unfortunately, non-target species are sometimes trapped too. It’s also hard to know if the lizards have actually been eliminated from an area, because they spend so much of their time up in trees.

A two-year-old German shepherd named Fico showed that conservation detection dogs might be the answer to tracking down the lurking lizards in Japan. After only two weeks of indoor training, she could recognize the smell of the Carolina Anole’s body odour, urine, and excrement, and also distinguish these smells from other native reptile species on the islands.

Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis). Photo: J Losos.

Fico is given the choice between anole scent and a test scent.

Over in Australia, the iconic and cuddly koala is in trouble, and dogs may be able to help. Koala numbers are in steep decline, and one culprit is disease caused by the bacterium Chlamydia. But studying wildlife diseases in the field is challenging. It’s costly and time-intensive to track down and catch wild animals to collect samples, not to mention stressful for the animals.

Finding and testing animal poop has less drawbacks and is much less invasive, so researchers wanted to find out if this approach could work to detect Chlamydia-diseases in koala scat. Poop samples were collected from koalas that had been admitted to wildlife hospitals for Chlamydia infections or other unrelated ailments. Then, the researchers put three different detection methods head to head. Two were genetic methods that looked for Chlamydia DNA in the poop, while the other was an 18-month-old rescue border collie with no previous scent training. After a total of 14 days of training, the dog was more accurate than the genetic methods in detecting different kinds of Chlamydia infection in koala scat, even if the koalas didn’t outwardly ‘look’ sick.

On top of sniffing poop to detect disease, dogs can also sniff out elusive, rare, and hard-to-find species, even those that nest underground like many bumble bees. One major threat to bumble bees is habitat loss and a loss of viable nesting habitat, but because nests are so hard to find, scientists don’t actually know all that much about their nesting ecology. If we don’t know where bumble bees are nesting and why they choose to nest in these habitats, it’s impossible to effectively protect them and the critical habitats they depend on.

In the United Kingdom, researchers trained a two-year-old male English springer spaniel to find bumble bee nests. The dog had no problem in experimental tests to find buried pots of bumble bee nesting material, while ignoring empty pots. Later, out in the great outdoors, the dog tracked down dozens of wild bumble bee nests of several different species.


Toby the first bumble bee sniffing dog. You can see Toby in action on YouTube

Could dogs join the team at Wildlife Preservation Canada to help biologists study Canada’s at-risk bumble bee species?

In partnership with WPC, a PhD student at York University researching bumble bee habitat trained a conservation detection dog to track down their nests. Unfortunately, the dog was not quite as talented as the springer spaniel in the UK.

At least for the time being, there might still be some things that humans can do better than dogs.  

Lisa Horn

Lisa Horn

Guest Blogger – MSc Candidate at York University in the Stutchbury Lab

Lisa is an ecologist with a passion for wildlife and conservation. Lisa has wide-ranging experience in conducting ecological inventories, assessing environmental impact of proposed developments, and navigating the framework of environmental legislation. She has a special interest in ornithology and species at risk and is currently investigating the effects of climate change in wintering habitats of migratory songbirds on their arrival condition in Ontario.